Unlocking The GMAT: Knowing The Target

Students Have Missing, Fragmented, or Underdeveloped Critical Thinking Skills

Although all students have solved math questions in high school or college, the math questions they face on the GMAT are different from the types of problems most students are familiar with. To solve them in the time allocated, GMAT math questions require much more sophistication and ingenuity. The same goes for GMAT verbal questions, which test grammar and logic in ways that most students have not encountered.

This critical thinking gap helps explain why, for example, even students with master’s degrees in mechanical engineering or finance struggle to earn above-average GMAT math scores. They may be proficient in most of the basic math tested on the GMAT, but they are likely missing the critical thinking skills necessary to solve GMAT math questions. The critical thinking gap also helps explain how an English major from an Ivy League university can earn a lackluster verbal score despite having a good command of the verbal content.

When students practice and master the key critical thinking skills that the GMAT rewards, and then combine these reasoning skills with the necessary content knowledge required, they can realize large improvements in their GMAT scores.

Students Make Predictable Cognitive Mistakes

As human beings, we are evolutionarily hardwired with certain brain processing mechanisms that leave us susceptible to making poor decisions during times of stress and uncertainty. Our brains tend to be naturally work-shy and try to conserve energy and resources whenever possible by using simple cues from our surroundings to help us make decisions. Unfortunately, this kind of lazy thinking is not optimal for making decisions in a modern world where complexity is often the rule, nor is it optimal for making decisions on standardized test questions such as the ones found on the GMAT, where pre-engineered trap answer choices can exploit our reflexes.

When students naturally engage in this inattentive thinking on GMAT questions, they often make the easiest deduction possible. This deduction is often, if not always, incorrect. How many times have you confidently solved a GMAT problem, found your answer in the five choices, and confidently moved on only later to discover that you’d been wrong? Because most of the time students don’t realize they’ve fallen into unhelpful cognitive patterns, they are susceptible to the GMAT’s traps.

The good news is that students can be taught to understand the cognitive mistakes by which they might be ensnared on the GMAT; they can also be taught to recognize what lazy thinking looks and feels like. By providing students with a better understanding of how to make smart decisions under uncertainty, they gain a substantial competitive advantage over their peers who are unaware of how their brains function under these conditions.

Whatever Your Situation, You Can Improve Your GMAT Score

Whether you’re completely new to the GMAT or have been studying with limited success for some time, you can improve. The articles that follow in this series will be an essential part of your GMAT preparation, and will offer you some fresh perspectives on the GMAT. With Harvard Business School’s first round of applications for its class of 2018 just seven short months away, now is the perfect time to get moving on getting the GMAT done properly; when done correctly, the process takes more time than most expect, but if you play your hand properly, you can earn a competitive GMAT score. I’m going to show you how. I’m even going to show you that it can be a whole lot less stressful than you may imagine. I think you’ll find the journey exciting and empowering. Stay tuned, GMAT nation.


Scott Woodbury-Stewart

Scott Woodbury-Stewart

Scott Woodbury-Stewart is Founder and CEO of Target Test Prep, one of the fastest growing GMAT test prep firms on the market. Scott is writing a special four-part series for Poets&Quants with advice for the GMAT, and he and his team can be contacted for a personal consultation.

Four Common GMAT Personalities

Case Study One: Monica – The English Major – High Verbal/Low Quant 

Monica was a 25-year-old English major with a 3.68 GPA from an Ivy League university who had been working in management consulting for the past four years. Because of her command of logic, grammar, and her excellent reading skills, she was consistently earning verbal scores at or above the 90th percentile. However, her quantitative and IR scores were well below the competitive threshold for the top programs to which she was applying. Before working with Target Test Prep, Monica had been studying for about six months by first taking an in-person GMAT class and then with a number of books and web-based courses. But her quantitative score would not budge. We quickly discovered that Monica lacked much of the conceptual knowledge tested on the quant section. Instead of taking the time to master this content knowledge, she had been taking practice test after practice test hoping for a higher score. We provided Monica with the proper study materials and put her on a strategic study plan to strengthen her score. We reviewed with her each topic tested on the GMAT, in detail, one at a time. By taking a more deliberate approach to her learning, Monica’s conceptual knowledge improved and her quantitative score improved to a 47. And her overall GMAT scores increased substantially: Monica earned a 730.

Case Study Two: Morgan – The Engineer – High Quant – Low Verbal 

Morgan was a 28-year-old biomedical engineer with a 3.85 GPA from a prestigious university known for turning out bright minds in the fields of science and technology. Having studied math, logic, and reasoning for most of his academic life, and having focused hard on mastering the GMAT quantitative section, Morgan was earning quant scores of 49 and 50 on all his practice exams. However, his verbal scores, hovering around the 61st percentile, were a drag on his overall GMAT score. Morgan’s command of standard American English as well as his ability to read critically were weak. We spent the time helping him learn the grammar and reasoning skills necessary to master difficult sentence correction questions. In addition, we gave him a set of sophisticated yet easy-to-deploy strategies for tackling critical reasoning questions. After three months, Morgan was able to earn a 750 overall—with a verbal score in the 96th percentile.

Case Study Three: Devon – The I-Banker – Consistently Making Cognitive Mistakes 

Devon was a 26-year-old investment banker in Manhattan who had studied with some web-based video GMAT courses. After spending countless hours looking for GMAT tips and strategies, Devon knew more about the GMAT forums than their owners did. He read every piece of advice and every success story out there. However, despite studying for five months and knowing the content well, Devon was only scoring around 600. In working with Devon, we discovered that he consistently struggled with data sufficiency and critical reasoning questions. Devon was consistently engaging in lazy thinking and making the easiest deductions on questions. Despite his high-energy manner and quick thinking, Devon was falling for the traps. On critical reasoning questions, he was using his intuition and instinct rather than analyzing the problems systematically. We helped Devon become more aware of these cognitive mistakes that he was consistently making on data sufficiency problems. In addition, we gave him a systematic structure that he could apply on critical reasoning questions. Devon was able to score a 700.

Case Study Four: Carolina – Out of School for More Than a Decade

Carolina did well in high school, earned a good SAT score, and graduated top of her class from a top university. After being out of school for more than a decade, she decided that she wanted to earn an MBA. On her first GMAT practice test, she scored a 480. Disappointed and concerned, she came to us for help. Although Carolina’s starting score was low, her case involved a tremendous amount of low-hanging fruit, and she made speedy progress. We gave Carolina quantitative and verbal materials, and she began relearning content she had known well almost a decade ago. After a few months of studying, Carolina’s GMAT scores were already averaging around 650. At that point we began working on developing her critical reasoning skills and helping her recognize and eliminate lazy thinking and cognitive mistakes. Within another month she earned a 710, high enough to be competitive at the MBA programs to which she was applying.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.